Sometimes Violent Extremism Has No Ideology
Suspected Portland train stabber Jeremy Joseph Christian wasn't clearly a member of the right or the left—he was just very, very angry.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Jeremy Joseph Christian was berating a Muslim teenager and her friend in a Portland train car on Friday when bystanders tried to intervene. The 35-year-old responded by fatally stabbing two of them and injuring a third, police say, and will make his first appearance in court Tuesday on charges of aggravated murder.
Naturally, activists on both the right and left spent Memorial Day weekend trying to claim he belonged to the other side. But the alleged murderer seems like a case study on how people can ping-pong between seemingly contradictory beliefs—the latest example of how extremism in America is often fueled less by a coherent worldview than by a generalized feeling of rage.
Judging by his social media posts and previous appearances at local political events, Christian was mad at "'Multicultural' Nazis," even as he sympathized with both fascists and communists. He had a local rep as a white supremacist and was filmed using racial epithets (and doing Nazi salutes) at an April Free Speech protest. On the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, he posted in celebration of imprisoned bomber Timothy McVeigh. He also loathed Hillary Clinton and her supporters more than almost anything else; at first, he supported Bernie Sanders during last year's heated presidential race before coming around to Trump and then ultimately deciding to abstain on Election Day, according to his own posts.
"Just to clarify a few things: 'I Hereby Solemnly swear to Die trying to kill Hillary (Herself a filthy Murderess) Clinton and Donald Trump should they be elected to the post of President in my faire country on Vinland. This I swear to Odin, Kali, Bastet, and all other Pagan Gods and Goddesses in my Aryan Theosophical Nucleus. This is my duty as a Viking and a Patriot. In Jesus name....I Feel the Bern!!!!'" he apparently wrote in February 2016.
Christian's latest and most virulent obsession was Antifa—the anti-fascist groups that have been publicly sparring with members of the alt-right since Trump won the White House.
In some ways, this story has echoes the one that came out of Florida earlier this month in which a neo-Nazi converted to Salafism and, according to police, confessed to murdering his roommates. When that happened, experts like Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, told me that it's actually not that unusual for people to jump between radical ideologies once they've already been primed for one.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, cautioned that it's important to keep in mind that Christian seems to have been anchored in racial and religious prejudice and was probably a bit unstable or mentally ill. Still, he points to the story of a Las Vegas couple who killed two cops and a Good Samaritan back in 2014 as a precedent for ideologically incoherent violence. Jerad and Amanda Miller were interested in conspiracy theories and known for dressing up as the Joker and Harley Quinn, and covered one of their victims with a Gadsden flag and a swastika. While they appeared to be anti-government extremists, their main motivation seems to have simply been sowing chaos.
"There was an anti-elitist slant that came from the Bernie side as well as the Trump side," Levin says of the 2016 race in which Christian took plenty of interest. "One of the things they both were was anti-status-quo, anti-elitism, and anti-establishment structures. One of the things we're seeing today is a lashing out against institutions and processes that folks regard as inauthentic whether it's 'fake news' or trust in financial markets, and thats where I think this emanates from."
Although many of us think of Portland as a liberal bastion, the state of Oregon was actually founded as whites-only. That history may have trickled down to Christian, who made calls to "Balkanize the US" and who supported a whites-only area in the Pacific Northwest.
If it feels like the Seattle area has seen an unusual share of hate-motivated violence lately, that's because it probably has. Levin says he just completed a study showing a significant spike in hate crimes and hate incidents in the city so far in 2017 compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, according to a self-reported (and not fully verified) study conducted by ProPublica, hate incidents have increased per-capita in Oregon more than in any other state.
Perhaps more important than geography is the incredible volume of hate-ridden messages available in the Internet Age. According to Levin, once someone accepts any radical ideology as being acceptable, they're much more open to embracing another one in the future. That means you can expect more acts of violence in which it's not easy to pigeon-hole the perpetrators based on their beliefs.
"What these people do is they craft their own amalgam of hatreds from a buffet available on the internet," Levin says. "You're not only gonna get a neatly packaged set of talking points. Angry unstable people will last out at a multitude of perceived enemies."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included a reference to Christian possibly having been influenced by Russian propaganda, which was removed in light of concerns about the self-described watchdog making that claim.
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